This may make me slightly unpopular, but I’m gonna say it anyway.
I’m not a massive fan of jumping saddles for leisure riders. A lot of people I know get themselves a dressage saddle, which helps improve their seat for flatwork and then they buy a jump saddle to complement this. However… I do feel that for low level jumping, up to 80-90cm, a jump saddle can put the rider in a too far forward position. This is partly due to the forward cut flaps and flat seat, but also partly due to the rider’s conformation and muscle’s strength. Riders with long thigh bones will find jump saddles more accommodating for the shorter stirrup length, which is when I would recommend riders look into using jump saddles. However, for the majority of us with average dimensions a jump saddle can encourage stirrups a bit too short, bring the rider’s centre of gravity up, push the bum to the back of the saddle and encourage the shoulders forward and the core to collapse. Then we wonder why riders struggle to maintain the rhythm into fences and find it harder to maintain a line to the fence. This position also leads to too much folding over a fence, especially a sub-80 jump, which can make it harder for the horse to bascule and for the rider to recover after the jump.
I would actually like to see more riders using forward cut general purpose saddles for low level jumping instead of fully fledged jump saddles. And let’s face it, the average leisure rider (particularly of the mature sector) rarely jumps higher than 90cm. I do wonder what saddlers think of the trend for having two saddles per leisure horse, and their feelings on the necessity of jump saddles.
Moving swiftly on, before I lose all followers, I’ve also done a lot of work with various clients recently on their jumping position, and getting them to understand how their position affects their horse’s balance and jumping ability.
First off, is the hand position. Horses need to be able to stretch their neck forwards over fences. However, over smaller fences they don’t need to stretch quite as much. So a rider doesn’t want to feel that they’re throwing their hands up their horse’s neck and losing all contact because retaking the contact will lose the fluidity of a jumping course or exercise. Nor should they feel that jerk in their hands as their horse pulls their hands off the wither to enable them to use their neck over the fence. The latter fault usually occurs when a rider is using their hands to balance in their jumping position. I always tell my riders to feel that the horse is taking their hands forward over the fence and the hand is following in a smooth motion.
Next up is the lower leg. The lower leg shouldn’t move between sitting up and folding over the fence. If it does have the tendency to swing it can cause the rider to sit back heavily on landing. There is the golden rule of shortening your stirrups by two holes from your flatwork length in order to jump, but as I said earlier, everyone is different so playing around with the length of your stirrups, particularly as you progress to higher fences, can make all the difference to your stability in the air.
When the lower leg is more secure, you can then move on to the upper body. A lot of riders throw the upper body forward when jumping, which as far as I can tell has two effects. Firstly, it encourages that lower leg instability. Secondly, it is weighting the horse’s shoulders which makes it harder for the horse to lift the forehand and tuck the forelegs up over the jump. In this situation you want to ensure that riders aren’t over folding and thus putting a glass ceiling on the withers, but rather folding forwards from the waist rather than dropping their tummy, and still carrying themselves so that they haven’t over loaded the horse’s forehand. Secondly, make sure the rider is folding into a squat position, so that their bum comes up out of the saddle and pushes towards the cantle. This brings their weight off the horse’s back so it can be flexed into the bascule. It also keeps the rider’s centre of gravity over the lower leg. I’ve found doing jockey position really beneficial for stopping riders throwing themselves over fences and developing a better sense of balance.
The next fault I’ll talk about is the recovery after the fence. This is difficult to teach because it’s all on feel. Weaker riders can find it hard to sit up after a fence, so recovery takes a couple of strides. Alternatively, they sit up between fences but only three quarters of the way back to upright. Which will affect both horse and rider balance over the next fence in a combination. On the other side of the scale is the rider who recovers too quickly after a fence; sitting bolt upright upon landing and disturbing their horse’s balance as they come down over the fence. Every horse is different: some scoot off after a jump so you need to sit up fairly quickly and regain control, but others will tense and run when a rider sits up quickly and heavily into the saddle upon landing. A good way of thinking about it, if you tend to sit up too abruptly is to think of your saddle being a pin cushion – you don’t want a sore bum! I do find that those riders who don’t sit up after fences are often hindered by their jumping saddle and I’d really like them to have a GP to jump in. Like I said previously, it is all about teaching feel for the right recovery for both horse and rider, so playing around with a single fence or simple grid can really help develop that sense of balance both over and after a fence.
One of my clients is transitioning from pony to horse, and we had an interesting lesson just before Christmas. They’ve been having the odd fence down, and looking at their performance, the mare can be a bit slow to pick up in front over uprights, so sometimes brings the rail down, but she can also drop a hind leg on the back rail of an over, so bringing that down.
We’ve done some grid exercises to improve their gymnastic ability, but this time I brought my rider’s focus onto her balance. She can help her horse over uprights by having her stirrups up a hole (the difference between jumping 1m instead of 80cm) and ensuring her centre of gravity doesn’t tip forward over the fence. She still needs to fold because it’s a large jump, but she wants to squat rather than fold, and leave space for the mare’s shoulders to come up to her. As soon as she did this, the mare had more clearance over the uprights.
This new sense of balance established, we moved on to the landing side. My rider had been told that she needed to sit up quicker after fences, however I disagreed and felt that it led to her sitting up in midair. Used to jumping a speedy pony, when she sits up after a fence she is quick to adjust speed and balance. Which isn’t needed so much with her new horse. I think she was slightly slow to recover initially because she was getting used to jumping bigger fences off a bigger stride. I felt that where she was sitting up as soon as they’d passed the halfway point, her weight was coming back down onto her horse’s back so encouraging her horse to drop her hindquarters quickly, which in the case of wide oxers, caused a hindleg to knock the back rail.
I asked my rider to jump the double we were using (a simple cross to a larger fence, to ensure they got the right stride for the jump in which we were focusing on position) and land in cross country position. Then two strides after the fence she should be sat into the saddle ready to go again. This is an exaggeration of what she needs to do on landing, but I needed my rider to feel and understand the difference it made to her horse’s bascule. The getaway looked more harmonious and in balance once my rider was staying in her jump position for a micro-second longer. Once she could feel the difference we looked at sitting up slightly quicker, so she decreased recovery time in preparation for jumping a course, but still sitting lightly into the saddle so that she didn’t hinder the way her horse jumped.
Hopefully, with this better sense of balance and centre of gravity they’ll improve their performance purely on the basis that the horse isn’t restricted in anyway, and then the variety of exercises I have lined up for the New Year will improve suppleness and agility for both of them which will only enhance their jumping ability.
This is one of my favourite photos of Otis and I jumping, and without bragging, it’s ideal for showing the stability of the lower leg, and how to fold without hindering the shoulder movement. I’m very quick to sit up on landing after fences – the joys of learning to jump whizzy ponies, and it took a while for me to get the hang of pausing in a light seat for a moment before fully recovering after a fence. Unfortunately I don’t have a video to demo this with.